Fresh from a three month residency at YARAT Contemporary Art Space, Baku, Evy Jokhova speaks to Sophie Breitsameter about exploring her family connection to the region, which inspired her latest solo project, ‘In this hot desert I miss the snow’, and her affinity for Azerbaijan’s people, its cities, and its otherworldly natural beauty.
Evy Jokhova had just brought her astonishing multimedia installation, The Shape of Ritual, which transformed the Church of the Most Holy Trinity, Vienna, into an exploration of the connections between history, architecture, art and music, when she was offered the chance to spend three months making art at YARAT Contemporary Art Space, Baku. For Evy, born to Russian parents, the opportunity to live and work in Baku, a melting pot of Soviet, Islamic, and 21st century influences, was too good to pass up.
A graduate of Central Saint Martins, the Royal College of Art, and Goldsmiths, Evy bases herself between Talinn and London, where she has been a part of numerous group and solo projects. Recent shows include Architecture as Metaphor, Griffin Gallery; First@108: Public Sculpture Award, RBS and No-one lives in the real world, Standpoint Gallery. She is also the founder of Allotment project – a platform that explores social relationships and cultural politics through food.
The time Evy spent at YARAT encouraged her to draw on her Azerbaijani roots. “It is difficult to put in words, but there is definitely a different sense of time in Azerbaijan which emerges from the landscape and how this landscape formed the local culture over time,” she muses. “People live in the present, they have time for one another; importance is given to face-to-face conversations, to history and to reminiscing.”
Here, Evy talks to Sophie Breitsameter about her residency and some of the experiences and revelations she has had in Baku along the way.
During your time in Azerbaijan you spent time reconnecting with family history. Tell us about the experience of putting a place to the stories of your mother and grandfather…
My three months in Azerbaijan turned out to be an even more enlightening journey than I had anticipated. This was not just because I was able to reconnect with family history, but because I also was able to explore elements of my own sense of cultural belonging, post-soviet heritage and mind-set.
I could not help but see glimpses of my grandfather in many of the people I met. The dislocated routines I observed with bewilderment as a child started to make sense. It was wonderful to see the dust kicked up by the winds on the Absheron peninsula and Caspian coast: it made me laugh, because I realised this is why my grandfather kept the habit of sweeping several times a day when he moved to damp, cold, dust-free Estonia.
How has Azerbaijan inspired your latest work?
The urban fabric of Azerbaijan, and especially Baku, is so varied, mixing the very ancient, the Islamic, and the Persian with Soviet and imposing oil boom architecture and contemporary landmarks like Zaha Hadid’s Heydar Aliyev Center. It is almost too much to negotiate without a prior understanding. It was inspiring and overwhelming at the same time. Because of this my investigations gradually took me to more natural landscapes and sites of pilgrimage, like Gobustan, Yanar Dag and Shah Dag.
I had initially intended to dedicate a large part of my research to the relationship between the local culture and the mountains, but had not anticipated the diversity of the mountainous landscape that Azerbaijan has to offer. Each region is home to communities with their own traditions and languages. Many traditions echoed each other with Persian and Soviet influences mixed in at different times throughout their history, but in all instances these traditions were strongly upheld and a sense of deep pride for them was felt. This sense of history became the conceptual foundation of my work made while there. The main piece became a film about an emotion, about love and the mountains, the search for a sense of belonging and, ultimately, identifying with a culture, the journey from place to place.
During your residency you continued your research on the significance of stone in a culture and the relationship between mountains and ritual. How would you describe Azerbaijan’s relationship with stone? What is the relationship between mountains and ritual?
These are huge questions. Well, for me anyway. I was amazed by the underground passages in central Baku – over four metres tall and all gleaming marble. These passages are wonderful: they give a sense of grandeur. The contrast between the ancient sandstone of the old city, its simple forms and monochrome colour and the decorative newer built structures with carved stone patterns, gilding and marble cladding is also striking. Details such as Islamic-style stone ornaments on Stalinist era constructions emphasise links between culture, politics and architecture.
Could you tell us more?
Islamic influences, such as carved patterns or peaked window frames, were inserted into designs that would have otherwise been identical to buildings constructed in other parts of the USSR at the time. Intriguingly, many of these designs were replicated in the post-Soviet era, and often visitors such as myself cannot tell which ones are old and which are new imitations. Why build copies of Stalinist era housing blocks now? I am not sure how to contextualise this phenomenon or where to situate it.
And what about the mountains?
I discovered just how much the lives of indigenous communities living in the mountains are steeped in rituals and customs. A life so closely intertwined with the natural environment, seasons and other natural phenomena is bound to be so. Similarly, the relationship between mountain and ritual is the relationship between a person (or community) and the natural environment, the effect one has on the other’s ebbs and flows.
Did your residency at YARAT help you develop as an artist?
Yes, I think it did. My research led me to create sculptures as props for the film. Certain materials I was accustomed to using were not as readily available as they would have been in the UK, so I used resources that were, such as substituting earthenware clay for mud from the local volcanoes and rocks brought back from the mountains.
What about collaborations?
I often work with others and through conversations with curators and theatre producers in Baku I found two Azerbaijani actresses to work with: Nargile Qaribova from the Azerbaijan State Pantomime Theatre and Rumiya Agaieva from the Azerbaijan State Russian Drama Theatre.
Together we created a choreographic sequence to my script and rehearsed in the studio. My cameraman and drone operator were also local. We shot all the sequences in one day over two locations: the Mud Volcanoes near Gobustan and the so-called ‘Candy Cane Mountains’ in Xizi. I chose the two locations as they were the most otherworldly, one reminiscent of the Moon, the other of Mars. The costumes were created to match the landscapes they were set in. I also made the decision to make the film a split screen installation, with each actress situated in a separate landscape, each commanding a screen in the installation, looking at one another and extending the conversation between the two landscapes.
It’s also accompanied by a soundtrack, isn’t it?
The basis for the sound accompanying the film was a love letter that a friend recorded while waiting for a flight to Australia, with all the noise of an airport audible in the background. It was my intention that the rest of the audio echoed the emotion of the film flowing in and out of that voice recording. To achieve this I worked with Baku-based artist Farhad Farzaliev, who created an original score for the film. In a way the process of making the work was also very much my own journey between making, meeting people, collaborating and letting the landscape partially dictate the work.
The title of the film, ‘In this hot desert I miss the snow’, is very poetic. What are the thoughts behind it?
I wanted the title to evoke a sense of longing: for home or perhaps a place once visited, or just somewhere other to where one is now. It is a reference to the movement of people, both in the historic sense of financial and political migration, but mainly in the post-Soviet context.
This has been a time during which so many new borders have appeared and disappeared. People were uprooted and moved. Many no longer have the option of returning to their homeland for a myriad reasons, some political, others economic, but most often because they have since made new homes and formed new communities elsewhere. The title is a musing of mine on the question: if my grandfather ever did return to live in Makhachkala or Baku, would he miss the snow in Estonia?
What was the most interesting place you visited during your residency?
The mountain villages of Griz and Khinaliq have captivated me most. In part because of the stunning mountain ranges they are set in, but also because of their remoteness, which instils in them a sense of calm and solitude. One day I would like to spend a week or two living in one of these settlements – it would be a fantastic place for an artistic residency.
Were you surprised by anything during your time in Azerbaijan?
How widely Russian is spoken in Azerbaijan was a revelation, and a very pleasant one at that, as it erased all language barriers for me!
What are you working on next?
My first exhibition in 2019 is coming up now in February in Lisbon, ‘Capitulo Um’ at AMAC, curated by Tim Ralston and Diana Cerenzino of PADA. After this I start a three month residency at Tomasz Hipolito Studio (also in Lisbon) with the idea of moving to the city afterwards and trying it out for year. I have been in London too long and fancy a change as well as affordable studio space! Of course, I will return to London often as I have several shows planned there, the first is in April: ‘Sisyphus in Retrograde’ curated by Aindrea Emelife and Gabriella Sonabend at White Box space in Regents Place, London.
Images courtesy of the artist